Children Will Listen: Ellen Bialystok's Bilingual Children

Going into my recent interview with Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D. and Distinguished Research Professor at York University in Toronto, to talk to her about her new book, Bilingual Children, I had in mind that the principal bilingualism in Canada was French-English.

Bialystok reframed this paradigm, as many others have this same misconception. With most researchers in the U.S. not understanding Canadian bilingualism, she explained that it was mostly a duality between a heritage language of immigration and either French or English, depending on if the immigrant family landed in or outside of Québec province.

She also stated that, unlike the U.S. context, the heritage language is maintained beyond the second or third generation, which is typically where U.S. heritage languages are lost.

Canadians speak the heritage language plus English or French, without little overlap between the two community languages. For example, research shows that 50-60% of households in the greater Toronto area do not use French or English as the primary language, with only a small minority using French (around 1.5%). In families where there are more than one language, children speak the heritage language at home and English in school and for activities.

The final difference between U.S. and Canadian bilingualism, Bialystok detailed, is that in the U.S. the languages are Spanish-English, with these bilinguals living in more difficult circumstances: They are found in lower socio-economic status contexts, they receive less education and bilingualism is centered on Spanish-speaking kids learning English in school.

Turning to the crafting of her current book, out now from TBR Books, I asked Bialystok how she went about trying to make the clinical information of her significant research accessible to a lay audience. She admitted that this was a difficult task.

"I have written other things for a general audience, such as a book on second-language acquisition," she said, explaining that her editor would come back to her and her co-author to say: "No graphs! That's too scary!"

"It's a matter of choice of words you use; you evaluate the text and eliminate technical language. 

She noted she "really focused on ordinary words, ordinary language to make the writing clearer," a true challenge in translating research-ese into non-fiction prose.

Bialystok's favorite part about writing the book was "putting it all together to tell a simple story. The book itself includes only a part of the research [she has done extensive studies on aging]; taking work I've done over decades and compressing it into a single story that's coherent.

In fact, Bilingual Children is a de-facto handbook, with subtitles of What Families Need to Know about Bilingualism and Families, Education and Development qualifying the title.

Motivating Bialystok to undertake all the research over the years were the questions she posed even as a graduate student: "What is the relation between language and thought? How do they intersect?"

"From an early age," the researcher told me she wondered, "If I didn't speak English, would I be able to think?"

Bialystok informed me that when she started to study these questions, researchers viewed language as "an island of its own" and cognitive researchers didn't deem that thinking involved language. "This was what it was like in the '70-'80s. Now, it's pretty much accepted that they [language and thought] interact."”

We ended our conversation with Bialystok sharing further pleasures of doing the research that resulted in this book: "I love getting a new, fresh set of data and seeing what it means. I have a lifelong interest in puzzles."

With the puzzle of bilingualism and how it relates to families raising children to speak more than one language, we are lucky to have the author of Bilingual Children to demystify and decode this vital question.


-Andrew Palmacci


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